There are a number of ways I could approach introducing people to House of Cards: the teasers linked at the top of the page have been circulating for a little while, and serve as a relatively straightforward taste of what the actual product will be like, but I want to delve into the actual heart of the game for my first pontification, as well as a description of how this game is its own creature, distinct from the other role-playing games one might choose to while away their leisure time.
The first incarnation of the game’s core was written for one of RPG.net’s sporadic “design a game in a month” threads; because of the compressed time frame, not to mention my own procrastination in getting started on actual writing until about half that span had passed, the kernel was very simple, but (I thought) evocative: you draw one of the Major Arcana to determine your character’s Archetype, and all of your powers flowed from the symbolic associations one could justify as falling under that Archetype’s purview. Magic was completely free-form, without lists or even a division between Greater and Lesser Powers (which will be discussed another time).
Apart from that initial draw, there was no “character creation” as such. Players drew their initial hand of five cards from the Minor Arcana, and started the game. As is the case in the current evolution of the game, a player’s hand of cards serves multiple functions: as one would expect, one must overcome conflict by playing cards from hand in order to defeat a target number representing the difficulty of the action taken. The hand also serves as a measure of a Bearer’s well-being and energy reserves, however: wounds are represented by losing cards from hand, making them both “die rolls” and “hit points” at the same time. Cards are also expended from hand in order to utilize Powers — Lesser Powers simply requiring any card of any value to activate a fixed effect, whereas Greater Powers scaling to some extent with the value of the card.
Because cards in hand are thus a precious commodity, replenishing them becomes a driving concern. The game acknowledges this by tying the ability to redraw with acting in-character: players who behave in ways that are appropriate to their Archetype get to replace cards spent on those actions.
In theory, this economy creates a system by which being immersed in character and the game’s primary active resource are interchangeable as currency. Still, starting Bearers have small hands, and must shepherd their cards carefully, which generates tension from the meta-awareness of the disparity between a character’s vast potential to act with the limited size of the bank of energy to fuel that action.